Friday, April 13, 2012

"Baby Peggy" at age 94

When I fell for Peggy Montgomery, she was maybe 5. I just saw her again today -- almost ninety years later, alive and well.

Every time my kids drag me to an of-the-moment crapcorn movie like Hunger Games, I  have to remind myself that they've been more than patient when shown many vintage black-and-white movies -- even silents -- in fact, have actually often embraced them.

No more so than when we stumbled upon Helen's Babies. 
A few tears ago -- before The Artist and Hugo made silent film hp again --  I took my girlfriend and daughters to see this 1924 comedy at New York's Walter Reade Theater, on a lark.  One of my kids is named Helen -- when she was an infant, I had bought a hardcover copy of the once-bestseller it was based on, to put in her nursery; they both love babies; and my cousin Ben Model composes and performs silent film music (often improvising).

Plus, Edward Everett Horton was in it -- who they knew from Astaire and Rogers movies, I knew from Holiday, Arsenic and Old Lace and, from my own childhood, as the unseen narrator of  "Fractured Fairy Tales" from Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons.

But none of us expected to be bowled over by a five year old.  "Baby Peggy," as she was billed, did an amazing amount of stunts, including falling out of a tree and playing with a straight edge razor. She stole every scene she was in. It wasn't just her incredibly expressive face or fantastic comic timing -- she seemed to have a precocious knowledge of the world.

Who the hell was she? What had come of her?

FDR and Peggy
I went home and read up on her and learned she had been not just a big child star -- she had been a huge star, period. After being discovered at the age of 19 months (!), she'd made 150 shorts by the age of 6, had clothes and dolls and contests modeled on her. Her salary one year was rumored to be $1.5 million. In the 1920s! She made an appearance at the 1924 Democratic Convention alongside future President Franklin Delano Roosevelt [left].

But soon after Helen's Babies, a studio chief and Peggy's father (who'd done cowboy extra work) had a fight over her contract, and she was blackballed from the business.  Her step-grandfather ran off with all the family's savings, most of Peggy's movies were lost when her first studio, Century Films, burned in 1925.

Peggy worked in vaudeville -- and, when vaudeville died, as a faceless extra in "talking pictures." Ultimately she escaped the unhappy family her fame had torn asunder (a jealous sister, a father who took credit for her success, etc.)

Jackie Coogan, pre-Fester
She reinvented herself -- with an entirely new name -- Diana Serra Carey.  She had several jobs and became a writer.

She has published books about silent film cowboys like her dad, abused child stars like herself, and her fellow child superstar Jackie Coogan (right, who we all know as Uncle Fester from the Addams Family TV series), whose financial hardships led to changes in the law protecting underage actors from their money being plundered. And finally, the 1996 memoir, Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy?
Diana with Baby Peggy dolls, circa 1996

Her amazing journey was brought back vividly today at the Turner Classic Movies film festival, which presented a new 55-minute documentary, Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room, directed by Netherlander Vera Irewebor. It alternates between clips of Peggy's silents, the story of her life, and recent interviews and, touchingly, scenes of Peggy recapping  her life to her young granddaughter.
And Diana Carey was there in person, a completely lucid 94 years old, interviewed by Leonard Maltin, who at one point fawned, "You define resillience." I had to agree.

A campaign is starting to get Peggy one of those embedded stars on Hollywood Boulevard. On the way home from the theater, I walked past one for Donald Trump. If he rates one, certainly Peggy does too.


Robert said...

Another fine post, David! I love Edward Everett Horton. It's funny how long a career he had yet it was his character turns (I Love Lucy, F Troop) which stand out the most.

John Bengtson said...


This 1933 Hollywood on Parade short on YouTube features Baby Peggy Montgomery at the 6:07 mark. She must be 14 or 15.

David Handelman said...

Thanks. That URL didn't translate for some reason.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much David for this great blog! Much appreciated from the maker of the documentary, Vera

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Baby Peggy has been nominated for a Star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame! Let's all see what we can do, to have her selected for star dedication in 2013!